29 February 2008

WE WILL CONTROL ALL THAT YOU SEE AND HEAR

The Signal, late of Sundance 2007, began life with a real honey of a concept: three hungry young filmmakers pooling their talents to make a cinematic Exquisite Corpse, using a common group of actors to make an interconnected trilogy of short films that would go God only knows where. In the event, that's not exactly what Dave Bruckner, Dan Bush and Jacob Gentry ended up producing, but the concept they settled on was still pretty swell, a concept any three hungry young filmmakers would be proud to have stumbled upon: one giant science-fiction horror story told in three short chunks, each written and directed by one man lacking any knowledge of all but the basic outline of the other two.

Yessir, that's a pretty interesting idea for a movie - sort of like those old horror anthologies that B-movie producers used to let their fledgling directors cut their teeth on, only bent in service to telling a unified story. It's a pity that The Signal isn't a little bit better, to really do that concept justice. It's not a bad movie; it's not even "bad". But it's not at all good in the ways that you'd hope a film like this would have been good, and it suffers from a fate common to many anthology films, namely that each short is a marked step down in both quality and interest from the one preceding.

Taken together, the three sequences ("transmissions") tell the story of a mysterious experiment in the rundown city of Terminus, where late one night all the television channels stop broadcasting suddenly, replaced by a shifting moire of colors and shapes accompanied by an unusual buzzing sound. The responsible parties are wisely left unrevealed, but whoever they are, they have a pretty misanthropic view of urban development, for the effect of the signal is to turn anyone exposed to it into a thuggish killer, a condition quickly dubbed "the Crazy" by the survivors. In a neat twist on a familiar trope, having The Crazy doesn't just turn you into a homicidal maniac; it breaks down the parts of the brain responsible for logical thinking, leaving the victim susceptible to paranoia and suggestion to such a strong degree that beating the other guy to death seems, in most every case, the smart and measured course to take.

Our particular entrance into the world of Terminus and The Crazy is Mya Denton (Anessa Ramsey), a young woman with a crude husband Lewis (A.J. Bowen) and a hipsterish lover Ben (Justin Welborn). Bruckner's story - the first - introduces the idea of the Crazy and follows Mya almost exclusively as she runs from hiding place to hiding place, hoping to avoid death and her psychopathic husband. Bush's segment, the second, broadens its cast while narrowing its scope, taking place in one small apartment, and featuring the farcical attempts of Clark (Scott Poythress), a landlord, Anna (Cheri Christian) a hostess driven to old-fashioned craziness when her husband tried to strangle her, and a collection of others (including Lewis), all trying to quickly learn the most important survival skill of the new era: how to tell if you're crazy and how to tell if they're crazy. The third segment, by Gentry, is the most unexpectedly romantic, reuniting Mya and Ben and sending them to the mythic Terminal 13, a train line that is the only way out of Terminus.

Splitting the story into three distinct genres - respectively horror, comedy, and romance (though all three have epic amounts of blood and gore being tossed around) - is probably not an accident, and it's one of the most important things that The Signal gets right. But it's followed hard upon by one of the things that The Signal gets most terribly wrong, and the two largely cancel each other out. For a film assembled from three shorts films, each made by a different writer/director, there's a significant homogeneity of style. Bush's transmission is notably different than the other two, at least in terms of camera angles and the length of shots; this is mostly to do with the fact that it's essentially a comedy, with all the issues of timing that comedy implies. But Bruckner and Gentry, perhaps by accident, perhaps by design, shoot their segments in remarkable similar ways. This is, we can agree, a far cry from the project's Exquisite Corpse roots, where the whole point would be to see what the mashed-up styles resulted in. The Signal feels much more like a pair of filmmakers electing to marry their work as much as possible, to prove just how slickly impersonal they could be to the money men. I'm sure that's just my bias talking, and it depresses me right the fuck out.

Granted, the style works in the film's interests, more often than not. The first segment of the film - Bruckner's - is smashingly effective horror, with a unpolished look reminiscent of an 70's proto-slasher (a feeling reinforced by the bravura opening, a clip from Gentry's short "The Hap Hapgood Story", all but indistinguishable from a grind house era splatter flick); rattling, jumpy editing; and some unusually brutal violence. This needs some particular respect: for a couple of decades now, bloody violence in American horror has tended towards the outre (slasher films through to torture porn) or the sterile (the great bulk of PG-13 sub-horror we currently enjoy). The Signal is neither of these - there is much gore, but none of it presented in an imaginative or exhilarating way. Instead, it's just nasty and brutish, low-fi brutality that manifests its rawness in the frequent blood splashing up on the camera lens. The film is vicious, but it is the right kind of vicious for the story and the way it is being told.

Anyway, that's the first segment. The second and especially the third aren't so successful: the second largely for acting reasons - the plot requires several people to leave ambiguous for the audience whether they are going crazy from the signal, or because they're living in a world of barbarous killers, and this is done very well by all concerned. But the plot also requires the actors to sell some pretty loopy farce, which they are much less capable of bringing off, and it looks kind of like community theater. It's a rare sight to see a comedy where the director has mostly very good timing, and the actors don't, but thus is The Signal. As for the third segment, it's shot like the first, as I mentioned, but it's not horror in any meaningful way, and it tells the most perfunctory story, or at least it tells its story in the most perfunctory way.

For all that, I enjoyed the film, and the idea is really too clever not to toss some love its way. The film isn't for the ages, and it's barely effective enough in its current guise to work well as a topic of conversation for the cinephile's coffee klatch. But it's interesting at least, and that's better than being good any day. Though there's nothing wrong with being both.

7/10

28 February 2008

BIG RIVER

What a difference an authoritarian regime makes: to Western cinephiles, Jia Zhang-Ke is quite possibly the most well-regarded of Chinese filmmakers (certainly, he is by far the most important Sixth Generation filmmaker), while in China his works are tolerated as much as they are celebrated. Case in point: his fifth feature, Still Life, despite winning the Golden Lion at the 2006 Venice Film Festival, was chastised by Zhang Hong-Sen, the director of the State Film Bureau, for being insufficiently warm and caring towards workers, and the film was rushed out of theaters to make way for more rousing, patriotic works.

That seems like bizarre complaint to make about a film that comes across as humane as Still Life does, but it fits, kind of. The actual title translates, so I am told, as Good People of Three Gorges, which seems to imply a much more "hurrah for the working class" plot than the film turns out to possess. Insofar as it possesses a plot at all. Which it really doesn't, giving us instead a somewhat rambling study of two people who are in much the same situation, except for all of the tiny ways that their situations are different, and one of them, as far as I can recall, is never given a name. So in fairness, this is really the kind of film that state film programs - even those in European countries - tend to look down upon.

The film takes place in the town of Fengjie, located on the Yangtze River on the edge of the Three Gorges region. Some quick history: the completion of the controversial Three Gorges Dam in 2006 - right about the time the movie was shot! - led to the creation of the Three Gorges Reservoir, covering many villages and cities and archaeological sites under a very large amount of water. This was known, and in the time leading up to the dam's completion, the government oversaw a massive relocation effort to bring all of the population living in the gorges above the new water level, effectively destroying cities and rebuilding them on higher ground. Still Life takes place in the final days of Fengjie: water is already lapping at the lowest parts of the city, and the only industry that seems to remain active is the demolition of every standing building.

Certainly, Jia uses this setting to great effect, but it would be entirely wrong to say that the movie is "about" the evacuation of Three Gorges. Rather, it is about two people who arrive in Fengjie around the same time, hoping to find their past in a city whose past is about to be destroyed: first we meet a coal miner (Han Sanming), looking for his estranged wife and their daughter, missing for 16 years. He very quickly falls in with the local workers, and helps them to tear down what's left of the city while he looks. After a long time following this man, the film shifts over to Shen Hong (Zhao Tao), a nurse looking for her husband, absent a much shorter two years. Their two stories gentle weave in and out, never intersecting but always feeling very much part of a complete whole. And it is actually about Three Gorges, too, but in an elliptical way that I don't like to think about too hard in case I break it.

So much for plot. Still Life does not function as a narrative; I am not certain what it does function as, although it functions very well indeed. This is a film of spaces and people moving within spaces, containing some of the most inerrant, beautiful compositions you will see in a theater this year, and a camera that moves almost constantly through very deliberately laid tableaux, through balletic choreography that you only realise is entirely preordained once it's finished. All of Jia's films (that I've seen) are at least somewhat concerned with the relationship between physical space and human bodies (hence the seemingly inevitable comment that his work is overwhelmingly reminiscent of Michelangelo Antonioni), but I'm not certain that I've seen him use camera movements and medium shots in concert to achieve that affect so beautifully - like the Chinese government, I've found his previous films to be a bit chilly, but Still Life moves with a fluidity that is as enveloping as a dream.

I'm going to give up: I'd been hoping to avoid using the word "dream" as too vague and helpless, but Still Life is not an easy film to pin down. It all seems very simple when you're watching it, and it sticks in the mind more as sensations and images than a concrete object to be sliced apart and dissected. It's all about nostalgia, memory, loss, things that are entirely in the head, and the movie itself is like those things, easier to feel than to explain. I think it will be best if I cut myself off before I embarrass myself any further by concluding: this is a beautiful film in every sense of that word, and though it is as slow as anything you're likely to see, it is the slowness not of boredom, but of a trance.

9/10

Fun game: come up with as many meanings for "Still Life" as you can. I found three:

-An image of an inanimate scene
-Life that is calm and unchanging
-Life that has not yet ceased to be life

All of which make for a much better title than Good People of Three Gorges. If I may say so.

27 February 2008

DO YOU SEE WHAT I SEE?

Strictly as an action movie, Vantage Point undeniably hits the minimum level of gaudy watchability with its multiple explosions and its 20-minute climactic car chase scene. The minimum is awfully low, however, and it's painfully evident that the film doesn't want to be a gaudy action movie. It plainly wants to be a smart film about the unreliability of point-of-view during a crisis, eager in the most unbecoming way for comparisons to a specific film about conflicting points-of-view made by a noted Japanese filmmaker, but I will not pay it the unearned compliment of identifying that film by name. Vantage Point is surely not a smart film about point-of-view, or about any other subject (the other one it cares about is the state of American invulnerability in a world that mostly hates us). Not being smart is not a sin for a movie with explosions and car chases, but it is, in this case at least, a failing. A very extravagant failing, for the film happens to be extravagantly not smart in exactly the places it's trying to show off.

In a nutshell, the plot is: the President (William Hurt) is shot at a summit in Salamanca, Spain. Multiple witnesses with multiple perspectives view the shooting in different ways. Those witnesses include Rex Brooks (Sigourney Weaver), the director of the CNN-analogue news station parked right outside the summit; Thomas Barnes (Dennis Quaid), a Secret Service agent returning to the field for the first time after being shot, just like every other movie Secret Service agent; Enrique (Eduardo Noriega), a local cop dealing with romantic insecurity; Howard (Forest Whitaker), an American tourist traveling Europe alone while his marriage falls apart back home; and President Ashton himself, revealing a twist that will surprise nobody who saw the film's ubiquitous trailer. Peripheral characters fail to get their own version of the story, such as Secret Service agent Kent Taylor (Matthew Fox) and terrorist Javier (Edgar Ramirez), and at this point if you've been counting, you've come up with five points-of-view, right? And the advertisements promised eight, right? Well, they lied. Deal with it.

Here's the reason I particularly resent the comparisons being made to that Japanese film: there, the reason that we saw four versions of one event wasn't to make a puzzle, but to reveal how people remember events differently based on what they want to be true. In Vantage Point, people see events exactly the same way, the differences come only in what they don't see that others do, and this is done solely to keep the viewer in a state of confusion. That's not a bad idea for a film. It's also an idea treated horribly in Vantage Point, the kind of mystery in which arbitrary questions are raised only so the audience will have something to wonder about. Admittedly, Barry Levy's script ties all of these questions together in a fairly tidy way, but it's hard to shake the feeling that most of the film's opening hour is not much more than an attempt to justify the fact that the opening hour contains about 12 minutes of story. At the end of each POV sequence, the clock rewinds to the stroke of noon, you see, and we watch the next 23 minutes and change roll out in not nearly 23 minutes, end with a cliffhanger, and then rewind back. I cannot explain how tedious this comes across in the viewing.

It must have come across as tedious in the telling, as well, because when the clock strikes 12:00 for the sixth time, the POV gimmick is essentially abandoned. The sequence starts off with the terrorists, goes through the "how we did it" bit, and then the film becomes a straightforward action picture, cutting between three plotlines without any reference to perspective. I am conflicted about this: furious that this action turns the movie into so much cock-teasing - after having used the POV trick to build its mystery, it cops out entirely on using the same trick to solve it - but it also turns the movie into something actually enjoyable to watch. The finale of Vantage Point is in no way original, and shot like a film student aping The Bourne Supremacy, but it's still thrilling and diverting while the rest of the movie is simply eye-glazing.

Oh, how I wish I could give away the stupid ending, and thereby save you from any thought of seeing this movie! But that screams against everything inside of me, even when a significant chunk of that ending is on display in the ads. Let me say then that the work not done to reveal the ending in a clever way wouldn't have been worth it; the ending is perfunctory to its toes. Since it happens at 80 miles an hour, it is easy to ignore. If that counts as a positive element, so be it.

As for the seemingly over-qualified cast...is it safe to say that none of these people ought to be surprising in a film this bad? Whitaker and Quaid are notable for working scripts far below their talent levels, Fox is a terrible actor even on Lost, Hurt will seemingly work in any project that will have him, Weaver has been going slowly insane ever since Alien: Resurrection. That said, most of them aren't "bad," even Fox. But since they haven't really been given anything in the way of characterisation to work with, none of them are especially "good."

So the final tally: decent actors wasted; impossible, idiotic plot twists; an unimaginative shooting style; an okay but unspectacular bit of action. Yep, it's a February movie all right.

4/10

26 February 2008

PUT THE BLAME ON VTR

Michel Gondry is quickly turning into a one-man argument against auteur theory. Or rather, he is a very strong argument for the theory, given that virtually every element of his most recent films seems to come straight from his own mind. It's just that auteur theory generally assumes that this will yield good results.

I don't like to say that. I've loved most of the director's music videos, some of them ranking among the best ever made, and like everyone else I think that his breakthrough second feature Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind is one of the defining films of the decade. Yet there's no denying that his two most recent films - three, if we include the frustrating concert documentary Dave Chapelle's Block Party - have been problematic, for very similar reasons that have everything to do with the man who created them. A year and a half ago, I kind of liked The Science of Sleep, finding its visual creativity more than enough to compensate for its dramatic missteps. But I cannot be such an apologist for Be Kind Rewind, which at best is a collection of very good ideas in search of a framework, and at worst is a dramatically stale film based on a terribly messy screenplay.

What's not to love about the basic concept: Jerry (Jack Black), a man with a magnetised brain, accidentally erases the entire tapes of movies at the aging video rental store where his friend Mike (Mos Def) works for his adopted father Mr. Fletcher (Danny Glover). Rather than let the business slide into ruin, the two buddies film replacement versions of the lost movies with no budget and no script. Surprisingly to them, and completely unsurprising to the audience, their 20-minute epics are wildly popular, turning the two men into the biggest stars in their sleepy corner of Passaic, New Jersey.

You can practically reach out and touch what this is supposed to be about: the joy of moviemaking, the love cinema, communities bonding, the American can-do spirit, Fats Waller. Wait, what? Yes indeed, the film has quite the obsession with Fats and the origins of jazz, opening with a homemade documentary about the man's life and death. If I were going to assume that every element of Be Kind Rewind made absolutely perfect sense, I might suggest that jazz, being an improvisational art form, is the spiritual forefather to the gleefully unrehearsed and unplanned films that Jerry and Mike made together. But I am meeting the film a bit more than halfway on that - more like 90% of the way, in fact. The other possibility is that Fats is just meant to add some color to the movie, and some depth to the characters, which I would be willing to accept, perhaps even praise, except that too much of the film, especially in its first act, revolves around the man for it to just be color. It's a major element of Be Kind Rewind, and one that makes not a bit of sense.

Although this is a conspicuous example, it's something that the whole movie suffers from: details that are too present to ignore, but too arbitrary to matter. There is the matter of Mike's behavior in the first act: it certainly looks like he's being shown to be mentally handicapped in some way, and by all appearances Mos Def thought the same thing, judging by his performance and the very strange thing he does with his voice. But once the moviemaking plot kicks in, that element of Mike's character is totally abandoned. There is a simply terrible romantic subplot that dies aborning. And so on and so forth. I almost want to call the script a first draft, with all the ideas that stop and start and are then forgotten. As a direct result of all this aimless digression, the story plods along at a glacial clip, particularly in - once again - the first act, which drags on and on through Fats Waller and Jerry's paranoia about the local power plant (which exists only to facilitate a plot point that could have been knocked out in the film's first five minutes) and the note that Mr. Fletcher leaves Mike that the younger man misreads (a warning to keep Jerry out of the store, and it makes absolutely no sense given everything we know to that point about Jerry, the store, and Mr. Fletcher).

If you can get past the awful dramatic inertia, there are a few bits and pieces that work, but not nearly enough to justify the film's existence. The scenes in which Jerry and Mike recreate classic films are all at least somewhat cute and amusing, although every one of them is a little less so than the one previous, meaning that the Ghostbusters pastiche featured prominently in the trailer is in fact the peak of the comedy. In a few other places, Gondry's brand of visual whimsy is used to good effect, mostly for only one or two shots in a row: I particularly liked the camouflage routine that felt vaguely descended from the Marx Brothers. But there is no trace of the overarching vision that made The Science of Sleep mostly enjoyable, and most of the ideas are present only in a sketchy way, feeling like storyboards more than movie scenes. In a film full of disappointments, the greatest sin Gondry commits may well be giving the brilliant cinematographer Ellen Kuras absolutely nothing worthwhile to do.

I've probably made the film out to seem egregiously bad, which isn't the case. It is mostly just thinly conceived and poorly executed. It's crime is being disaffected far more than being awful. But this is Michel Gondry we're talking about, a man whose early and middle career were marked almost exclusively by brilliant things, and whose every film will raise the undying question, "Is this the next Eternal Sunshine?" Well, Be Kind Rewind isn't even close to that level. It's just the latest stop on the stubbornly declining hill of Gondry's career, and it makes me choke to have to write that.

5/10

25 February 2008

TSPDT #614 - BEYOND THE VALLEY OF THE DOLLS

The traditional means for going beyond straight seriousness - irony, satire - seem feeble today, inadequate to the culturally oversaturated medium in which contemporary sensibility is schooled. Camp introduces a new standard: artifice as an ideal, theatricality.
-Susan Sontag

It's such a fine line between stupid and clever.
-David St. Hubbins

This is my happening and it freaks me out!
-Future Pulitzer Prize-winning film critic Roger Ebert
It's hard to know where to begin discussing Beyond the Valley of the Dolls. I would like very much to open by considering its place in the career of Russ Meyer, one of the key figures in the history of exploitation cinema, but I'm very ashamed to admit that this is the first and only film I've seen by Russ Meyer.* Certainly, I know what everyone knows about the director, that he loved to make live-action cartoons about large-breasted women committing acts of sex and violence; I have heard it said that he considered BtVotD to be the greatest work of his career. That's all I know. With that said, I'm not certain that the film really needs any context. It was made in a unique time and place by a unique sensibility, without a doubt, but it is also a sort of perfect object; it justifies itself by its existence and by the relationship it builds with the viewer.

BtVotD allegedly began life as a sequel to Mark Robson's anemic filmed version of Jacqueline Susan's classically overwrought potboiler Valley of the Dolls, but so quickly turned into an over-the-top parody of that film that 20th Century Fox demanded that Meyer open with a solemn title card declaring that the two films had nothing in common besides a few matters of theme.

Meyer's film follows the career of a trio of grrl rockers, known as The Kelly Affair: Kelly MacNamara (Dolly Read, Playboy Playmate of the Month in May '66), Casey Anderson (Cynthia Myers, Playboy Playmate of the Month in December '68) and Pet Danforth (Marcia McBroom, never a Playboy Playmate of the Month), and their manager, Kelly's boyfriend Harris (David Gurian, who once worked as a photographer for Playboy). Seeking more excitement, fame and fortune than their drowsy Texas town could provide, the quartet travels to Los Angeles to meet Kelly's wealthy aunt Susan Lake (Phyllis Davis) and her scheming business partner Porter Hall (Duncan McLeod). They very night they arrive, Susan has been invited to a party, and she brings them along; what they find at the ostentatious home of the ambiguously bisexually gay hermaphrodite and Phil Spector analogue Ronnie "Z-Man" Barzell (John LaZar) will forever change their lives. The band is recast as The Carrie Nations, a hard rock folk group (or something), and the girls' success turns Kelly into a money-hungry whore, Casey into a pill-popping drunk and Pet into a comparatively uncomplicated slut.

The one thing that everybody knows about Beyond the Valley of the Dolls is that it was written by future Pulitzer Prize-winning film critic Roger Ebert, three years into his career at the Chicago Sun-Times. This is typically offered up as a skeleton in the closet, proof that Pulitzer Prize-winning film critic Roger Ebert isn't so all-knowing as he might seem to be. Except that Pulitzer Prize-winning film critic Roger Ebert has never made any real effort to hide the fact that he wrote this film, that he is in fact proud of this film, and he and co-scenarist Russ Meyer never intended for the film to be taken as anything other than a tongue-in-cheek farce, a satire of the excesses of the 1960s and of films about the excesses of the 1960s, and a good old-fashioned sex romp like Meyer cut his teeth on, and more-or-less invented with 1959's The Immortal Mr. Teas, typically called the first nudie-cutie. You may want to call Pulitzer Prize-winning film critic Roger Ebert a liar, but there's no need to take his word for it: while plenty of films almost indistinguishable from this one were played completely sincerely, particularly those made under the influence of the many free-flowing drugs in the late 1960s and early 1970s, it's that "almost" that really makes the difference. There are just enough hints that this is all meant to be very silly that the attentive viewer will be in on the joke, long before the film tips its hand with the apparently psychotic finale (conceived by Meyer and future Pulitzer Prize-winning film critic Roger Ebert on the day of shooting). It is in fact a very smart film, not a guilty pleasure even for those who like to think that pleasures need to be guilty, but simply a straight-up fun sex comedy.

But I'm not interested in mounting a defense of the movie. I quoted Sontag at the beginning for a reason (and if you haven't read the linked essay, "Notes on Camp," please do; it is an essential work of cultural criticism). BtVotD, like a John Waters film, is beyond judgment. If you love it the way it should be loved, you're in on the joke; if you hate it then you're part of the joke. More than its value as camp parody, the film is fascinating and perhaps surprising for how smartly it's all put together. As I said: I am no Russ Meyer scholar, but if this film is any indication, he was actually a pretty good filmmaker.

The film is honestly a well-constructed thriller from the word "go": the opening scene, deliberately framed and edited for maximum impact without every letting us see exactly which characters are involved, is a note-perfect bit of suspense filmmaking. A figure in a red velvet cape stalks through a ritzy house, coming upon a naked woman in a bed and shooting her with a handgun. We have no idea what's going on precisely, and the fact that this is all going on underneath the opening credits makes it a bit more confusing, but these are good things: we are kept in suspense. It's not hard, as the film's cavalcade of nudity and ludicrous dialogue unspool, to forget that this happened, but when that red cape reappears at the end, it's a moment as shocking as anything in Hitchcock.

That's well and good, yet it's not entirely what I meant by "well-constructed." The film's momentum is kept at a high pitch through an editing conceit that ought to be annoying, and at first it is. Every scene that ends with a line of dialogue (and that includes most of them) cuts a few frames before the sound ends, so that a new scene always begins with the previous scene literally ringing in our ears. Most of the shots within scenes are similar. This is a classic trick called overlap editing, and it's hardly a clever technique, but I've not seen too many movies where it's used almost constantly as it is here. It keeps the picture editing from punctuating the scenes: that is, scenes are not made up of individual moments that start and stop. The scenes rather flow almost hastily from shot to shot, so that the film never seems to take a pause, and since the same technique is used to connect scenes (and that is clever, or at least not nearly so common), the movie as a whole has the same feeling of ceaseless flow. Not that a movie about naked female potheads could ever be "dull", but the editing here is conspicuously good at keeping the pace of the film very high, and that lets the film get away with a nearly two-hour running time that would otherwise be anathema to an exploitation picture.

As far as its visuals go, BtVotD was shot by Fred J. Koenekamp, an Oscar nominee that same year for Patton, and while nobody would claim that the cinematography in Meyer's epic was quite that good, it's unmistakably the work of someone who knew what the hell he was doing, if only for the amazing colors that pepper the film. Besides that, the imagery, more than the screenplay, is part of how we get the joke. The example that leaps to mind - it's a combination of photography, directing and editing, and can't be solely credited to any - occurs twice, during two of the band's numbers. The girls are in the center, with Z-Man and Harris superimposed on either side - ordinary stuff, showing how the impresario is the devil and the now-discarded boyfriend is the face of goodness and light. The gag comes when the superimposed faces start to shoot each other dirty looks. They can't see each other - this has been established - and so the moment is clearly a meta-cinematic joke, not just within the film's context, but also against all the films that use similar visuals as an obvious cliché.

I could probably go on, but you get the picture. This is smart and exploitative; gaudy and lurid but winking as it goes. It is the very definition of self-conscious camp, certainly not Art but much too intelligent for Trash. It prefigures the grind house; it prefigures Grindhouse; it is good dirty fun, with equal emphasis on all three.

24 February 2008

POST-MORTEM

The results of the Academy Awards.

My thoughts: a big fat fucking "whatever." I'm not kidding about how much Crash has ruined this process for me. And the fact that the night's only real surprise was in Visual Effects, it's not particularly easy to get all hot and bothered about anything.

Glad for Robert Elswit, too bad about Roger Deakins.

My new criterion for picking the Animated Short: my least favorite will win. Not that I didn't like "Peter & the Wolf", but I liked the other four significantly more, and it's the third year in a row that's been the case.

I did a satisfactory 6/8 on the big categories, and an embarassing 11/24 overall - not as bad as my mortifying 2002, where I went 4/24, but I do think it's the second-worst I've done since I started predicting all of the categories.

Anyway, I think that it's late enough that my Sunday Classic "They Shoot Pictures" Review will wait for Monday. Sneak preview: in the spirit of the Oscars, it's a parody of the excesses of LA in which all of the women were cast largely based on their physical appearance.

23 February 2008

MAYBE NOT

You know what you're getting into pretty much the instant that Definitely, Maybe begins: William Hayes (Ryan Reynolds) voiceovers that one of his perpetual goals in life is to find the perfect song to score every moment of every day, and that on this Tuesday - he loves Tuesdays, they're the day he gets to spend with his daughter - he has a perfect song. In go the tiny wireless earbuds, on goes the shiny generic iPod, out comes a rap song prominently featuring the word "bitch." This is what I like to call a "ho ho!" moment: it is so self-satisfied with the blustering quip just made that the thin humor that remains once the obvious has all been scraped away is completely scrapped, and I think of the film as a rotund Dickensian gentlemen chortling "ho HO!" at himself, while I-the-audience am cast as the valet hoping he won't notice that I didn't laugh.

ANYWAY, the point I was making is that after his little whoops moment, Will sheepishly informs us, still in voiceover, that here's the actual perfect song for the perfect day, and the film's soundtrack is taken over by "Everyday People" by Sly & the Family Stone. Way to dig through the album cuts there, Mr. Hayes!

So yeah, the point of that digressive bloviating is that this film opens with its main character bragging about his clever song-picking skills, and to prove it he foists upon the audience one of the most overplayed songs on the face of the planet. Thus will be the dominant key of Definitely, Maybe; the film keeps threatening to get smart on your ass, before retreating to the safest corners with the fewest sharp edges that it can find in the romcom playbook.

The film is not, at any rate, guilty of that greatest sin of the modern romantic movie: it does not tell lies about "happily ever after." At the start of the film, Will opens an envelope containing divorce papers; as the film unspools he will share with his daughter Maya (Abigail Breslin) an autobiographical tale meant to reveal both why we're all perpetually alone and why we keep playing the game anyway. It's actually a bit like an ersatz Annie Hall written by a man with barely a trace of Woody Allen and Marshall Brickman's natural intelligence and starring a man who is frankly not a whole lot more charismatic than Allen.

Definitely, Maybe - I confess that I hate the title a little bit less every time I type it, although that comma needs to go right back to hell, all the more so since the opening credits animation seems carefully designed to call the most possible attention to it - begins in earnest once Will picks Maya up after school that fated Tuesday to find a small riot breaking out over the fact that the 5th or 6th graders have been given their first sex-ed class (that "or" is because we're never told - Maya is 11 years old, which could be either, but can there really be that much controversy over teaching 6th graders in New York City sex-ed?). This gives the movie one of its funniest grace notes, a girl unable to cope with the thought of her parents having sex, and one of its most queasily unpleasant riffs, as Breslin says "penis" what must be two-dozen times. Long story short, Will is forced to explain what love and sex really are, and he uses his own newly-failed marriage as the base of his argument. Answering Maya's longstanding question about how her parents met, Will presents this story as a mystery of sorts, telling her about the three great loves of his life without telling her which one he ultimately married.

That framework drifts in and out of the movie for the next 80 minutes, which largely consists of a big flashback to the glorious years of 1992 through 1997, and the one element of Definitely, Maybe that pissed me off more than anything else: it doesn't look like 1992 through 1997. There are "remember when?" type gags like the giant "cellular phone" that Will has to hold, or the hipster who name-drops Kurt Cobain (ah! those days before Pitchfork rounded all the indie music snobs into one conveniently-ignorable place!). By far the most obvious and weirdest element of the flashback is that Will was an ardent member of the Clinton campaign staff, and the rises and falls in that man's career neatly (too neatly) mirror Will's erratic love life. But the clothes and hair are all perfectly modern (and Ryan Reynolds hasn't even been made up to look like 16 years have passed - the frame story takes place in September, 2008, which means that this is a science fiction movie), and it just feels very modern but caught in period dress. Not that the period is so remote as all that.

Will's story revolves around three women: Emily (Elizabeth Banks), the Midwestern girl/college sweetheart; Summer (Rachel Weisz), the smart, urbane anti-romantic; and April (Isla Fisher), the darling quirky one. It probably counts as a point in the film's favor that although the film telegraphs which woman is just right, the divorce plotline muddies things up a bit and the way the film reaches its ultimate conclusion (which is much more routine chick-flickery and much less "We need the eggs") is honestly pretty hard to predict.

I mean, it's not like Adam Brooks, the writer and director, didn't try. He plainly wanted to make a thoughtful - but cheery! - film about the pitfalls of love in the modern world, with its high failure rate and the weird tension of a culture that privileges both hooking up and companionship. Unfortunately, that's not the sort of movie that gets made, especially not with people like Ryan Reynolds and Isla Fisher, neither of whom have ever been better but "Ryan Reynolds's high water-mark" isn't exactly praise.

The end product is sweet, charming (thanks mostly to the endlessly reliable Breslin), and not particularly funny for even a moment. It is almost completely without personality, and the only thing that makes it even slightly memorable is its willingness to admit that there are sad things in life like divorce and loneliness, even if it doesn't make a real effort to follow through on that realisation.

6/10

20 February 2008

NUMBER OF TIMES I CALLED IT "DAIRY OF THE DEAD" IN THE FIRST DRAFT: 4

There is no doubt in my mind that the most interesting development in cinema right now is the curious explosion of first-person camcorder movies (somebody needs to come up a name for the style soon, but not me). It seems highly unlikely that any of the three films so far made with this aesthetic - Brian De Palma's Redacted, the J.J. Abrams-produced Cloverfield and now, horror grand master George A. Romero's Diary of the Dead - could possibly have been made in reference to each other, but that's part of what makes it so fascinating: that three very different filmmakers would almost simultaneously hit upon the same technique for three very different reasons.

As everyone who had the ability to write mentioned a month ago when Cloverfield was new, this style seems unavoidably linked to the rise of YouTube, that generation-defining paradise for video diarists, politicos, pop culture collectors, musicians, and so on to infinity. The idea seems to be that within a very short time, a very large portion of society has become helplessly addicted streaming video and the idea that things only exist if they can be captured, digitized and uploaded for the whole world to see.

That's certainly an intriguing idea, although it feels like the people making probably aren't the same people spending all their time on YouTube. It's also not an idea that has been all that well served by the films that it purports to explain: Cloverfield ignores the theme almost completely, while Diary of the Dead humps it to the point of exhaustion. Only the criminally underrated Redacted gets things just right, and even that film hedges its bets by couching the home movies in among several sources of artificial found footage.

Because they've been released so close together, and both are horror films, it's the easiest thing in the world to lump Cloverfield and Diary together in this discussion. But the most characteristic element of Romero's film is actually the one that most clearly sets it apart from Cloverfield, and makes it more like Redacted: where the monster movie was explicitly presented as found footage, the exact unedited videotape found in a camera in the former Central Park, we are told literally within seconds of the beginning of Diary that we are watching a finished film, assembled by one of the survivors in some vain attempt to make sense of all the chaos going on around her. That film isn't actually Diary of the Dead (words that first appear in the closing credits), but The Death of Death, directed by University of Pittsburgh film senior Jason Creed (Josh Close) and edited together by his girlfriend Debra (Michelle Morgan), mostly using footage shot by Jason but occasionally incorporating some of the video clips he downloaded showing the terrible international epidemic of - all together now - the dead rising from the grave to eat human flesh.

Just about the most vexing question about the film - it is not a "problem" as such - is the question of authorship, by which I mean the question of who to blame for everything that goes wrong. The Death of Death/Diary of the Dead is marked at all points by some very bad aesthetic misfires, most of them having to do with Debra's extremely intrusive point-of-view, especially the voiceover where she explains in insultingly simply detail what this project is and why she has put it together and what her goals are: to instruct us and to scare us. It is also in this voice-over that we get much of the meat of the film, although "the brussels sprouts of the film" is a better metaphor: the apparently wise but thoroughly unpalatable message that is very good for us. In this case, Romero's contention by way of Debra by way of Josh that decades of television news, the easy availability of prosumer cameras, and the explosion of streaming online video, have all contributed to a society where we'd rather record what is happening or watch those recordings than actually experience life. A fine if cranky theme as I suggested earlier, but expressed here with all the artlessness of a machete to the forehead.

So my question: are the ridiculous narration and cheesy video transitions and all that the result of a great director, Romero, making some very ill-advised choices, or the result of a great director creating a character whose ideas about filmmaking aren't particularly well-formed. The Death of Death is certainly a bad documentary, but I don't think that Diary of the Dead is at all a bad movie. Still the parts of the film that Debra didn't create, Romero must have, and that includes some very dispiriting moments such as when Josh's drunken British film professor (Scott Wentworth) compares holding a video camera to holding a loaded gun. Moments like that - there are several - are the basis for the argument that Diary is a flawed film or even a failure; without doubt it is the least of Romero's five zombie movies (I say this in full knowledge that whereas Night, Dawn, Day and Land formed a unified chronology, Diary effectively reboots the series and should be regarded at best as an alternate history, if not a totally unconnected film).

Still, a Romero zombie movie is a Romero zombie movie, and "the least" still leaves a great deal of room to get worse; well do I recall three years ago when I first saw Land of the Dead and was convinced that it was an epic disappointment. I still like it less than the classic trilogy, but it has grown on me by leaps and bounds since then. So I will refrain from making any sweeping judgments against Diary. Even if it's the least brainy of the five films, it might well be the scariest, for while Romero is famously a smart genre filmmaker, we must never forget that he is also a good genre filmmaker, with a nearly inerrant sense of what that genre requires. The man who invented gutmunching zombies knows that some of us love gore; thus there are a couple of fantastic showpieces including an instant classic involving hydrochloric acid slooooowly dissolving an undead skull. He also knows that some of us prefer our films not to pornographically showcase blood 'n' guts, and so there are very few of those gore setpieces, with most of the moments in the film using shadows and inference to suggest more than they show.

The use of first-person turns out to work very well in a genius's hands just as far as genre tropes go; as most horror hinges on what the audience doesn't know, this technique effectively guarantees that we don't know more than the usually ignorant heroes. It's the least Romero can do for us; having saddled himself with an arbitrary contrivance (the reason that the characters won't put down the camera is defended better than in Cloverfield, but it still doesn't make a whole lot of sense), he at least gets some mileage out of it.

At the end of the day, is it a great film? Nah. But it's good. I have very little doubt I will like it more 12 months from now than I do at this moment, just like everyone did with Day and Land. There's no question that Romero indulges himself more than usual, sometimes to good ends - the opening of the film, on the set of Josh's mummy movie, allows for a couple of genuinely great inside jokes - but mostly to ill or inconclusive ends. And this is a director whose tendency to reign himself in has never exactly been a strong suit. But in a world of aggressively anonymous horror, such a personality-rich little ditty as Diary of the Dead is surely nothing to sniff at, especially given that its best moments are great and its worst moments aren't "bad" so much as they are "frustrating." Even at his worst, Romero is one of the best.

7/10

WE CAN DANCE IF WE WANT TO; WE CAN LEAVE YOUR FRIENDS BEHIND

Aside from having one of the most delightfully gaudy titles given to any sequel in recent years, there's primarily one way that Step Up 2 The Streets improves upon 2006's Step Up: significantly better dance numbers. I was going at first to write "good dance numbers," but that seemed needlessly harsh to the first film, which does after all have at least a couple good scenes. But replacing Anne Fletcher's proficiently slack choreography with significantly better work by Dave Scott (Stomp the Yard), Hi-Hat* (How She Move) and Jamal Sims (Step Up, but let's not hold that against him. Wait; Garfield. Okay, hold that against him) is all it takes to make the sequel better than the original.

Then, there's primarily one way that Step Up 2 falls far short of its predecessor, and it's not something that the original Step Up could really boast about in the first place: if the story of the first movie was derivative and robotic, the sequel contains enough contrived melodrama to make D.W. Griffith look askance, and utilitarian dialogue that leaves the actors sounding like those plot-recapping radio announcers from terrible sci-fi movies in the '50s.

According to that theory of genre films which holds it better to do the important things right than to do the incidental things poorly, a dance movie needs great dancing more than it needs a compelling plot to whisk us from dance to dance. By this yardstick - the one I shall use - Step Up 2 is the superior work in the franchise so far. This is not the same thing as being a particularly decent movie, but it's very hard to argue that the dancing falls short, which means that the film at least justifies its own existence. The film does itself a big favor by putting the two best dances in the film at the beginning and the end, so that we get pumped up right away and leave the theater with a very favorable last impression; this seemingly self-evident bit of wisdom is lost on most entries in the genre, though they are as rote as Step Up or as comparatively successful as How She Move. Generally, the dancing is a bit more demanding than it was in the first film as well, proving for example that the star of that film, Channing Tatum in a rather well-executed cameo), actually can dance really damn well. It's grittier and tougher than before, shot with a bit more attention to the dancer's movements than their sex appeal, and it keeps the plot at bay more often than not. It's an ideal movie for the chapter-forward button on your DVD remote in that sense.

In truth, the plot isn't so terribly melodramatic as I made it out to be (and who doesn't secretly like melodrama anyway?) as it is very thoughtless. Besides the main through-line, none of the plot points it sows are ever paid off; each scene exists almost solely to lead into the next scene, and so all sorts of possibly interesting character conflicts are swept away like dead insect husks. That main through line, by the way, is the sad tale of Andie (Briana Evigan), a orphaned white teen living in Baltimore with her mother's black friend, getting into trouble with the local avant-garde street dancers 410. As the film begins, things are so bad that she is about to be shipped off to Texas, if she can't prove herself in one last chance at the Maryland School of the Arts, where she meets the star pupil and hellraiser Chase Collins (Robert Hoffman, a miniature, less-charismatic Jay Mohr), who is taken by her urban dance style, and just like last time, the two combine classic and step dancing to prove to everybody that hdfhaaaaaannnnnnnnnnnnnnnn

I fell asleep on my keyboard, there. Recapping the plot was almost as boring as sitting through it. Sorry.

That reliable old stock tale is not given any kind of workout, and it's surrounded by a whole lot of dross that you'd think would add flavor, but just ends up a bit distracting, and the film ends with a shocking number of forgotten loose ends for a teen picture. Most of these involve the colorful supporting characters, none of whom are very memorable except for East Coast Old Money Name, who prefers to be called Moose, a dancing nerd played by newcomer Adam Savani in a role that drifts from excruciating to endearing over the course of the film.

What really bothers me the most, and I feel like a pretentious tool for even bringing it up, but unlike Step Up, almost every moment of the plot here hinges on class and race struggle - the main conflict is that the carefully diverse band of MSA dancers wants to compete at The Streets, an underground competition held in the African-American neighborhood, but they are viewed as outsiders and poseurs - and the film runs as far as it can at every moment from actually exploring the ramifications of race and class. It was a problem in the first, a bigger problem here, and it reeks of the worst sanitising instincts of Disney, the studio that released the films. Yes, yes, inoffensive dance movies for teens and pre-teens, but the movie keeps calling attention to it through the lines it gives white characters versus the lines it gives minority characters, and it invariably chickens out. I don't know that it would have bothered me enough to even bring it up (it would have bothered me enough to notice, though), if not for the actress who plays Andie's guardian: Sonja Sohn, who plays Detective Greggs on HBO's The Wire. That unfortunate overlap with another Baltimore-set work that deals with those issues in every fiber of its being doesn't really hurt Step Up 2 (the show and the film can't have that much of a common audience), but it's a convenient reminder of how irresponsible the dance movie is being.

I'm trying to put more weight on the film than it can possibly stand. I know that. So let's ratchet back to the Land of Appropriate Criticisms: the leads are charming and they can dance well, but they are not very good actors; the plot is sloppy at best; the cinematography by Max Malkin is fairly gritty but in a very unimaginative way; the music numbers are well-directed and edited, but the rest is Film School 101 all the way. But hey, I'm not the target audience here. I didn't like the first one, I'm not a teenager, and I'm a middle-class white man, so my whole big class/race thing is built on false premises. I guess I'm saying, why did you read this at all?

5/10

18 February 2008

THE SOOTHING BANALITY OF THE HAYDEN

I went to see Jumper with a female friend, who wanted to go because Hayden Christensen is pretty. I wanted to go because Rachel Bilson is pretty. Our post-film analysis concluded that because Jamie Bell is so pretty now, it makes watching him as a 13-year-old in Billy Elliot kind of awkward.

So no, I wasn't expecting good things out of Jumper, and I got what I wanted.

It is a film totally without personality; its existence is a matter solely of commerce and the knowledge that deep down, most of us do not require much in the way of logical storytelling or a compelling visual language when there are pretty people to be gawked at. This is indeed the reason that movie stars exist, not that Christensen or Bilson are particularly good movie stars, being respectively "Oh God, that Star Wars kid" and "Who?" "The friend on The O.C." "Oh, God." Also, Bilson weighs about 20 pounds nowadays, and that's really too alarming to be even a little bit sexy.

Anyway, the story goes: David Rice (Christensen) is 15 years old when he finds out that he can jump instantly through space, to any place he has seen (or apparently, seen in a photograph). So he runs away, leaving behind a drunkard father (the perpetually under-loved Michael Rooker) and Millie (Bilson), a sweet girl who fancies him. Before you can say "with great power comes great responsibility," he's robbing banks and living the high life, and eight years go by in wretched excess, visiting the beautiful places of the world and hooking up with the beautiful women of the world. Eventually, his life catches up with him, in the form of Roland (muthafuckin' Samuel L. Jackson), the leader of an ancient religious order that seeks to eradicate all the world's "Jumpers."

For David, we find soon, is not alone; and with the help of a paranoid young Brit named Griffin (Jamie Bell), he prepares to wage war against Roland and his order, before something terrible happens to Millie at their hands. And what is the mysterious secret around David's absent mother Mary (Diane Lane)? Insultingly easy to guess, that's what.

The thing that makes me want to scratch my eyes out is that this isn't essentially bad. It is very nearly essentially good, and just about every five minutes during the film, I caught myself coming up with story ideas that would have been several times more engaging than what I was watching. I know that thinking about all the movies you didn't see is one of the least productive ways to spend your time, but Jumper all but demands you do so. At a certain point, David convinces Griffin to join his fight by appealing to the idea of a limited-run superhero team-up. By this point, I'd already long since written an entire movie trilogy about Jumpers as superheroes in my head, but it still wasn't very nice of the film to point out how self-evident that idea is, and then not give it to me. Or elsewhere, the question is raised, what choice do the religious zealots hunting the Jumpers have? Well, since we're told that this war has been going on since the Middle Ages, it seems awfully likely to me that the frighteningly authoritarian and secular Church that existed at that time might have come up with some very good uses for the Jumpers, especially since we're also told that the power manifests itself at age five. Ignatius Loyola would have dropped dead of ecstasy if he'd been given those boys to brainwash. The religious Jumpers being used to hunt the rest: tell me that wouldn't have been at least marginally more interesting than what we got.

Because, here's what we got: a young man steals his way to a fortune, assuming that eventually he'll pay it all back, lets everyone who ever knew him think that he's dead for eight years, he fucks his way across three continents while keeping it in his head that he's being true to his childhood sweetheart, he only leaves his hedonistic life to prove to that sweetheart that she should love him again, he leaves allies for dead and ends up incapacitating several innocent bystanders; ladies and gentlemen, our hero. I don't find it in me to disagree with Roland says that he must be destroyed as an abomination.

Of course, we are talking about Hayden Christensen versus Samuel Jackson. A famously inexpressive pretty boy versus one of the most badass mothers in the history of the cinema. Moreover, this is Jackson with frosty white hair, which is even more badass than his already dangerously high level of badassery. Casting Samuel L. Jackson with frosty white hair turns out to be a really great way to score many unearned points for your villain. Casting Christensen proves that you are interested in an audience of teenage girls. Indiscriminate teenage girls. I don't know if the film would have been better with an actor who doesn't naturally seem like such a smug asshole - I doubt it - but it wouldn't have been any worse. As for the rest of the cast, well, they're pretty much there: Bilson needs to eat something, and her timing has slipped since the first couple of seasons of that show that I didn't watch so DON'T LOOK AT ME LIKE THAT because I didn't watch it, except I mean just a few episodes I QUIT WHEN IT GOT REALLY BAD. As young David, Max Thierot looks quite a lot like Christensen. As a sexily unshaven Brit, Jamie Bell is indescribably too good for this script. As the Diane Lane character, Diane Lane is exceptionally Diane Lanetastic.

Director Doug Liman has gone from making a fun, brainy thriller in The Bourne Identity to a fun, silly thriller in Mr. & Mrs. Smith, and now he's just made a silly thriller that has to good decency to keep moving forward. It's clear that Liman is just getting the job done, even in his historic scene shot inside Rome's Coliseum; the best example I can think of is the inevitable Christensen/Bilson sex scene, which is blocked as badly as I've ever seen sex blocked, and which actually made my female friend snicker out loud. I did not do that, because I am a sober-minded critic, but...oh, I snickered. I can't lie. Meanwhile, David Goyer co-wrote the script, and if this and The Invisible are the sorts of projects he wants to be involved with nowadays, I think we can all breathe easy that he's not an active part of the creative team on The Dark Knight.

A summary paragraph? Why? It's monumentally mediocre, but it's impossible to expect it to be anything else, and that adds up to a nice bit of brain-dead fun. There's nothing wrong with the film, there's nothing right with the film. That's not true. There's Samuel L. Jackson with frosty white hair snarling, "There are ALWAYS! CONSEQUENCES!" That's worth some money, I suppose.

4/10

2007 OSCAR PREDICTIONS: LESS TALKING, MORE PREDICTING

For your convenience, the commentary-free version of my Oscar guesses - all of these are "will win" not "I want to win."

Best Picture
No Country for Old Men

Best Director
Joel & Ethan Coen, No Country for Old Men

Best Actor
Daniel Day-Lewis, There Will Be Blood

Best Actress
Julie Christie, Away from Her

Best Supporting Actor
Javier Bardem, No Country for Old Men

Best Supporting Actress
Cate Blanchett, I'm Not There

Best Adapted Screenplay
No Country for Old Men, by Joel & Ethan Coen

Best Original Screenplay
Juno, by Diablo Cody

Best Foreign Language Film
The Counterfeiters (Austria)

Best Animated Feature
Ratatouille

Best Documentary Feature
No End in Sight

Best Cinematography
No Country for Old Men

Best Editing
No Country for Old Men

Best Art Direction
Atonement

Best Costume Design
Atonement

Best Makeup
La Vie en Rose

Best Score
Atonement

Best Song
"Falling Slowly" from Once

Best Sound Mixing
Transformers

Best Sound Editing
Transformers

Best Visual Effects
Transformers

Best Animated Short
“My Love”

Best Live-Action Short
“Tanghi Argentini”

Best Documentary Short
“Sari’s Mother”

2007 OSCAR PREDICTIONS

Six days 'til the Oscars (which will be happening in all their unexpurgated glory, praise be to the end of the strike). Can I be honest? I can't make myself care. I mean, obviously I care a little or I wouldn't be writing this, but whereas last year I was still kind of energised, this year the unfathomable botch that was Crash beating Brokeback Mountain two years ago finally got to me. These awards are a mental exercise, nothing more. How much do I not care? This year, Joel & Ethan Coen - as a team, one of my favorite filmmaking forces active anywhere in the world - are up for four Awards. That has only happened three times: Orson Welles for Citizen Kane, and Warren Beatty for Heaven Can Wait and Reds. Moreover, the Coens are very likely to win all four, and that has never happened at all. And I can't get even a little worked up over that. Ask me how I feel on the 25th.

Anyway, here are my nominations predictions, a mixture of following the precursors, cribbing from people smarter than I, and in a couple places guessing wildly.

(Wondering if you should use me to win your office pool? Don't. Last year I was right on just 13/24 overall, and 6/8 on the big awards)

Best Picture
Atonement
Juno
Michael Clayton
No Country for Old Men
There Will Be Blood
Will/should win: No Country for Old Men
Spoiler: Michael Clayton

If I had just woken up from a coma this morning and was given the list of nominees, I would almost certainly think that Michael Clayton was going to win, and here's why: Atonement is clearly out of the running - no Director nomination. If being a comedy weren't enough to kill Juno, then being a teen comedy would do the trick. There Will Be Blood is too depressing, and No Country is too depressing and too violent. Although it wouldn't have taken that much work, really; Michael Clayton is a very sensible movie of extremely solid craftsmanship with an uplifting but serious message and the most gorgeous movie star alive. Golden!

But I didn't just wake up from a coma, and I therefore know that No Country has won just about every precursor award that could possibly matter. Which doesn't always guarantee an Oscar win, but since there are no gay cowboys in No Country to siphon off the bigot vote, I think I'm going to go for the safe bet.


Best Director
Paul Thomas Anderson, There Will Be Blood
Joel & Ethan Coen, No Country for Old Men
Tony Gilroy, Michael Clayton
Jason Reitman, Juno
Julian Schnabel, The Diving Bell and the Butterfly
Will/should win: Joel & Ethan Coen
Spoiler: Tony Gilroy

No such quandary here - it's not as blindingly obvious as Marty's win last year, but the Coens are the only nominees who have been previously nominated, and they're modern American masters who haven't ever won in this category and there's a building consensus that No Country is their best film (eh...). It does get into the tricky area that picture/director splits have become increasingly common this decade, but even then I think this is the category that No Country has fully locked up.

If I HAD to pick a spoiler, it would be Tony Gilroy, believe it or not. He's a good craftsman, they'd get to reward a writer who came up through the ranks, and Schnabel and Anderson just don't fit right (Schnabel's film didn't get nominated, and doesn't PTA just seem too hip for the room?).

How Jason Reitman got a nomination is something I will die without knowing.


Best Actor
George Clooney, Michael Clayton
Daniel Day-Lewis, There Will Be Blood
Johnny Depp, Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street
Tommy Lee Jones, In the Valley of Elah
Viggo Mortensen, Eastern Promises
Will win: Daniel Day-Lewis
Should win: Viggo Mortensen
Spoiler: none

If the evening has a lock, it is Day-Lewis for the win in this category. And for good reason: his performance, in all its operatic melodrama, is the backbone of one of the year's best films. Personally, I did like Mortensen just a touch more - his performance was more about the mechanics of acting, if you will, and to a certain degree that's alienating; but it was also much more intellectually exciting. I guess that's what it comes down to in my mind: an emotional sucker-punch versus a precise intellectual study.


Best Actress
Cate Blanchett, Elizabeth: The Golden Age
Julie Christie, Away from Her
Marion Cotillard, La Vie en Rose
Laura Linney, The Savages
Ellen Page, Juno
Will/should win: Julie Christie
Spoiler: Marion Cotillard

Any one of these five ladies would be satisfying - yes, even Blanchett, who gave the overripe Elizabeth: Gowns and Armadas exactly the lead performance it deserved. But for my money, the grande dame of the race is the best, breaking your heart and making it look easy (though I was sorely tempted to put Linney for the "Should", because she is, after all, Laura Linney). I think Christie's built-in army of admirers from a 40 year career in the movies ought to make her victory pretty easy; yes, Oscar loves a good mimic and Cotillard was a great mimic, but she's outclassed. A lot.


Best Supporting Actor
Casey Affleck, The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford
Javier Bardem, No Country for Old Men
Philip Seymour Hoffman, Charlie Wilson's War
Hal Holbrook, Into the Wild
Tom Wilkinson, Michael Clayton
Will win: Javier Bardem
Should win: Casey Affleck
Spoiler: Hal Holbrook

Actually, I do not think that Affleck should win Best Supporting Actor; he shouldn't have even been nominated, given that he was the lead in The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford. But category fraud has ever been and will ever be with us. And whatever the case, he does things with that role that would have made him a movie star in a more just world.

For the win? No contest. Bardem has picked up almost every possible award to this point, he dominates his movie (always a plus in the supporting categories) and he plays an already-iconic villain.


Best Supporting Actress
Cate Blanchett, I'm Not There
Ruby Dee, American Gangster
Saoirse Ronan, Atonement
Amy Ryan, Gone Baby Gone
Tilda Swinton, Michael Clayton
Will win: Cate Blanchett
Should win: Saoirse Ronan
Spoiler: Ruby Dee

I was torn by the "should win" here: Blanchett was so much fun (though not even the best supporting actress in that film), Ronan was the living heart and soul of the over-literate Atonement, and Swinton is one of those actresses that I'm just head over heels for. But ultimately, I must go with my first biases, and those are that if a child actor can steal a film away from everybody else, I must love them for it (see: Osment, Haley Joel, Oscar-nominated roles of).

Who will win? A nightmare. It's not so hard to whittle it down to Blanchett (Oscar loves a mimic), Ryan (critics' darling) and Dee (old vet, never won). But after that, this becomes possibly the hardest category of the night to predict (Cinematography, I think, runs it a close second). The argument that Blanchett's 2004 win in this category seals her out is one that tempts me very much, but Oscar loves a mimic, and it was a gender-bender to boot. That latter fact is pretty much the only reason I'm leaning her way and not Ryan's.


Best Adapted Screenplay
Atonement, by Christopher Hampton
Away from Her, by Sarah Polley
The Diving Bell and the Butterfly, by Ronald Harwood
No Country for Old Men, by Joel & Ethan Coen
There Will Be Blood, by Paul Thomas Anderson
Will win: No Country for Old Men
Should win: Away from Her
Spoiler: There Will Be Blood

The story goes that Donald Ogden Stewart once said of his award for adapting The Philadelphia Story, "It was the easiest Oscar I could have won. All I had to do was stay out of the way." I feel something much the same about the screenplay for No Country, which is no doubt exactly perfect in respect to the flawless film that it produced, but virtually every last line is already in Cormac McCarthy's original novel - the order is shuffled a tad. And a few bits are cut out. All done very smartly. But it's like giving a screenplay Oscar to a Shakespearean adaptation. It's not going to matter, of course: I cannot conceive of what it would take for one of the other nominees to unseat it, especially if I'm right about Picture and Director.

Personally, I thought that Polley's script, written when she was all of 27 and capturing the essence of what it means to age and die, might have been just a tiny bit more of a stretch.


Best Original Screenplay
Juno, by Diablo Cody
Lars and the Real Girl, by Nancy Oliver
Michael Clayton, by Tony Gilroy
Ratatouille, by Brad Bird
The Savages, by Tamara Jenkins
Will win: Juno
Should win: Ratatouille
Spoiler: Michael Clayton

It's a crazy thing that the presumed frontrunner is the film which, out of the nominees, succeeds in spite of its screenplay, and not because of it. I do think that Cody has a very interesting future ahead of her, and I look forward to her next project; but the dialogue in Juno clangs like a jet engine stalling.

Even if that weren't the case, it's still not the best nominee, by a long shot. My two favorites here are Jenkins and Bird; Jenkins for nimbly balancing hilarity with pathos and two of the most realistic protagonists in any film in 2007. But my love must go to Bird, and his jerry-rigged rescue of a floundering project, creating a truly inspiring work about the need to create art, the need to appreciate art, and how silly the French are. Plus, dude: Anton Ego's review. It still strikes me as a little weird that Brad Bird of all people needs to take the piss from critics, but that speech is worth mounting on a bronze plaque. Remember, kids: "not everyone can become a great artist, but a great artist can come from anywhere."

I've heard more and more rumours that the Juno backlash might enable the night's only win for Michael Clayton in this category, but I don't think the backlash started early enough, and to not give Original Screenplay to a quirky indie would at this point take more imagination than I'll credit the Academy with having.


Best Foreign Language Film
12 (Nikita Mikhalkov, Russia)
Beaufort (Joseph Cedar, Israel
The Counterfeiters (Stefan Ruzowitzky, Austria)
Katyn (Andrzej Wajda, Poland)
Mongol (Sergei Bodrov, Kazakhstan)
Will win: The Counterfeiters
Spoiler: 12

One of two categories where I've seen none of the nominees, so this is admittedly a huge guess. Especially because of the dark magicks kept 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days from making the cut. Seriously, what the hell was that about?

Anyway, I'd love to see Wajda get the win - and Poland too, for that matter. That country has the second-worst record in this category: now with its 9th nomination, it has never won. Only Japan can top that (that's right, the home of Kurosawa never won a foreign film Oscar). But I don't know why that would happen, and anyway, only one of these countries (Russia) has ever won before. My sense is that it's between 12, a remake of a certain American film, and the WWII picture from Austria. I don't know, doesn't it feel like we're due for a WWII picture in this category?


Best Animated Feature
Persepolis (Marjane Satrapi & Vincent Paronnaud)
Ratatouille (Brad Bird)
Surf’s Up (Ash Brannon & Chris Buck)
Will/should win: Ratatouille
Spoiler: Persepolis

When Persepolis lost out on a nomination for Best Foreign Film, I briefly wondered if that increased its chances here. I doubt it; Ratatouille is too beloved and too popular, and I see less than no reason to assume that Brad Bird will fail to become this category's first repeat winner.


Best Documentary Feature
No End in Sight (Charles Ferguson)
Operation Homecoming: Writing the Wartime Experience (Richard E. Robbins)
Sicko (Michael Moore)
Taxi to the Dark Side (Alex Gibney)
War/Dance (Andrea Nix & Sean Fine)
Will win: No End in Sight
Should win: One of several films which were not nominated
Spoiler: Sicko

Usually, only one or two of the nominees in this category are well known at all, and everybody flocks to that one or two as the frontrunner, but there's a wrinkle: in order to vote, one must have seen all five films. So at least theoretically, the best film ought to win in this category. Theoretically.

This year, that means that everyone's saying No End in Sight, with Michael Moore's Sicko as the spoiler. But I've seen all five - the first time I've ever done that, I'm proud to say - so I think I can be a bit more reasonable than Joe Typical, and I've concluded...No End in Sight, with Sicko as the spoiler. But at least I got there fairly.

Step one: War/Dance isn't going to win. It's about Africa. We Americans feel guilty about Africa, and this category isn't about guilt, it's about being noble. (This is, however, the only option for a Bush supporter. There must be at least a couple of them in the Academy).

Step two: the three Iraq/Afghanistan films are going to cannibalise each other, though they shouldn't. No End is the Very Serious And Insightful Study, Taxi to the Dark Side is the most emotionally invigorating film of the five, and Operation Homecoming is the humanist - but still angry! - film that is also the only one of the five to do anything even vaguely interesting as cinema. This award is typically Very Serious, which means that the three-way battle will fall in favor of No End. Although the fact that Operation Homecoming is both very humane and actually an interesting movie almost led me to call it the spoiler, except-

Step Three: This is the Year of Health Care. Admittedly, that was more over the summer, but with the Democratic primary in full blossom, and the candidates' health plans being much on the lips of the politically engaged, I do think the issue has been reborn a bit. Thus does Sicko hold onto its place as the film that made America aware of The Issue, just like that global warming picture last year.

Step Four: Michael Moore is easy to hate. Even on the left, which I'm not convinced that the Academy really is. So Sicko can only be a spoiler.

Anyway, this category was a fucking hatchet job anyway. Let me try this on you:

In the Shadow of the Moon
Into Great Silence
The King of Kong
Lake of Fire
My Kid Could Paint That

Be honest, now - which list is better?


Best Cinematography
The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford (Roger Deakins)
Atonement (Seamus McGarvey)
The Diving Bell and the Butterfly (Janusz Kaminski)
No Country for Old Men (Roger Deakins)
There Will Be Blood (Robert Elswit)
Will/should win: No Country for Old Men
Spoiler: The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford

I'm stealing from a cinematographer friend of mine: Assassination of Jesse James is much more conventionally pretty (and probably took more effort), but in No Country, Deakins does a better job using the visuals to augment the story, and isn't that what it's all about? There's really no other competition for my preference, though all five are well-shot films, and Elswit, like Deakins, turns in his career-best work. He just didn't do it twice.

But as far as the Oscar goes, this one is ludicrously hard. It's down to an obvious three: Deakins, Deakins and Elswit. The ASC award went to Elswit, but that's not a terrific predictor: in the last ten years, they've matched up four times, or just enough to be almost but not quite completely useless. Fun wrinkle this year: it's likely that the ASC voters split on which Deakins film to reward, and Elswit came up through the middle (that Deakins has already won the ASC award is, I'm certain, not a minor thing either). Will that happen at the Academy? I'm not sure. The tech awards don't usually work on a "name recognition" basis. That does raise the question: which Deakins film, the prettier but much less popular one, or the less obvious work in the Best Picture frontrunner? In the past decade, no film has won this award without several tech nominations or a Best Picture slot (or both), and Assassination... has neither, so with great reluctance I'm going to go for the Deakins film that people actually saw.

(The BAFTA win somehow makes me feel better in this prediction. It should not).


Best Editing
The Bourne Ultimatum (Christopher Rouse)
The Diving Bell and the Butterfly (Juliette Welfling)
Into the Wild (Jay Cassidy)
No Country for Old Men (Joel & Ethan Coen)
There Will Be Blood (Dylan Tichenor)
Will/should win: No Country for Old Men
Spoiler: The Bourne Identity

I'm going to pretend that it's impossible to see this going to a film that isn't up for Best Picture, which slashes our list to two. I see no reason not to keep predicting that No Country will be better-liked by the Academy than TWBB (though, for what it's worth, I do love me some Tichenor). It would be nice to know if the editors' names are actually on the ballot - I can see where voting for the Coens for the fourth time might dissuade people.


Best Art Direction
American Gangster (Arthur Max, Beth A. Rubino)
Atonement (Sarah Greenwood, Katie Spencer)
The Golden Compass (Dennis Gassner, Anna Pinnock)
Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street (Dante Ferretti, Francesca Lo Schiavo)
There Will Be Blood (Jack Fisk, Jim Erickson)
Will win: Atonement
Should win:Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street
Spoiler: There Will Be Blood

I am torn. Sweeney Todd had the pretty Gothic sensibility that just positively scream "I WAS DESIGNED!" but it's apparent that the Academy didn't have much use for the film. Atonement has that period thing that they tend to like going on, it got a boatload of nominations, and only a psychopath would deny that the designers did a really good job evoking the era. It's very difficult for me to see the others winning: American Gangster and There Will Be Blood are both too low-key, and I can't imagine that enough people liked The Golden Compass.

But lo! What is this late breaking news? Why, There Will Be Blood has won the designer's guild award! Could this mean that it will win the Oscar? I genuinely don't think so, but it has to be regarded as a strong spoiler now.


Best Costume Design
Across the Universe (Albert Wolsky)
Atonement (Jacqueline Durran)
Elizabeth: The Golden Age (Alexandra Byrne)
Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street (Colleen Atwood)
La Vie en Rose (Marit Allen)
Will/should win: Atonement
Spoiler: Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street

It pleases me that this category means that Across the Universe will forever after be "Oscar-nominee Across the Universe, but the costumes there really aren't all that interesting.

Anyway, the win: so clearly going to be Atonement, and here's why: That Green Dress. It's already just about as iconic as movie couture can be, for entirely good reason, and it appears in a film set during the 1930s, one of the time periods that the Academy loves to give this award to. That's also true of Renaissance England, and there's no doubt that Byrne's designs are elaborate and evocative, but also - like so much of 2 Elizabeth 2 Furious - overbearing and melodramatic. How can costumes be melodramatic, you ask? See the film.

It would not do to miss pointing out that Atwood's work in Sweeney Todd probably did more work to help the movie than any of the other nominees, particularly the simultaneously gaudy and ratty gowns she kept stuffing Helena Bonham Carter into.


Best Makeup
Norbit (Rick Baker, Kazuhiro Tsuji)
Pirates of the Caribbean: At World’s End (Ve Neill, Martin Samuel)
La Vie en Rose (Didier Lavergne, Jan Archibald)
Will/should win: La Vie en Rose
Spoiler: none

A truly inexplicable set. I cannot begin to imagine the chain of events that will lead to a Norbit win, and between the other two...I mean, Lavergne and Archibald made the gorgeous Marion Cotillard look really old and ugly. That's not only impressive, it's very much what wins the Oscar.


Best Score
3:10 to Yuma (Marco Beltrami)
Atonement (Dario Marianelli)
The Kite Runner (Alberto Iglesias)
Michael Clayton (James Newton Howard)
Ratatouille (Michael Giacchino)
Will win: Atonement
Should win/spoiler: Ratatouille

Those now-famous typewriter clicks in the Atonement score are pretty damn awesome, and the rather free way that Marianelli shifts from major to minor keys just sweetens the deal. But then again, it's all very heady music, where the Ratatouille score is just so...nice. Not to mention the orgasmically glorious "Le Festin," a better song than four of the Best Song nominees.

Meanwhile, damn the technicality that allowed them to disqualify Jonny Greenwood's epochal There Will Be Blood score. Damn that technicality right to hell.

Meanwhile, pt 2: who knew that Michael Clayton had a score?


Best Song
From August Rush, “Raise It Up”
From Enchanted, “Happy Working Song”
From Enchanted, “So Close”
From Enchanted, “That's How You Know”
From Once, “Falling Slowly”
Will/should win: "Falling Slowly"
Spoiler: "That's How You Know"

Yes, I know that this category is particularly notorious for rewarding the best nominee about once every 30 years, but I simply don't trust a system that could possibly fail to reward a song as good as "Falling Slowly" used as well as it's used in Once. A reminder.

On the other hand...I don't trust this system.


Best Sound Mixing
3:10 to Yuma (Paul Massey, David Giammarco, Jim Stuebe)
The Bourne Ultimatum (Scott Millan, David Parker, Kirk Francis)
No Country for Old Men (Skip Lievsay, Craig Berkey, Greg Orloff, Peter F. Kurland)
Ratatouille (Randy Thom, Michael Semanick, Doc Kane)
Transformers (Kevin O'Connell, Greg P. Russell, Peter J. Devlin)
Will win: Transformers
Should win/spoiler: No Country for Old Men

Again, I am torn. The conventional wisdom is "the biggest sound wins," and that it surely Transformers. But No Country for Old Men is a rarity, a film with such self-evidently amazing sound design that people who have no clue what "post-production" means are noticing it: the hotel room scene contains what might be the most celebrated use of sound since the talkies ceased to be a novelty. And the whole film is full of moments like that.

But picking the loud movie doesn't usually fail me, and there's a hidden component to this race: Transformers's Kevin O'Connell, who is semi-famously the losingest man in Oscar history, going 0 for 19 in this category since Terms of Endearment in 1983. That might make it seem like his presence is a sure-fire sign that Transformers will lose out, but I'm choosing to be optimistic that the twentieth time will be the charm.

I don't mind saying, this is the category where I feel most likely to be wrong, given that Cinematography and Supporting Actress are such clusterfucks as to be wild guesses anyway.


Best Sound Editing
The Bourne Ultimatum (Karen M. Baker, Per Hallberg)
No Country for Old Men (Skip Lievsay)
Ratatouille (Randy Thom, Michael Silvers)
There Will Be Blood (Matthew Wood)
Transformers (Mike Hopkins, Ethan Van der Ryn)
Will/should win: Transformers
Spoiler: The Bourne Ultimatum

My misgivings about the justly famous No Country sound aren't so significant here: this is even more the "loudest movie wins" category, and that gives it to Transformers in a walk. I'm inclined to agree, if only because the team had the decency to include the vintage transforming noise.


Best Visual Effects
The Golden Compass (Michael L. Fink, Bill Westenhofer, Ben Morris, Trevor Wood)
Pirates of the Caribbean: At World's End (John Knoll, Hal T. Hickel, Charlie Gibson, John Frazier)
Transformers (Scott Farrar, Scott Benza, Russell Earl, John Frazier)
Will/should win: Transformers
Spoiler: none

I see no reason to waste time this late in the post explaining something self-evident, though I'd like to note that if I am right about the last three categories, Transformers will be the only film of the year to win every Oscar it was nominated for.


Best Animated Short
“Even Pigeons Go to Heaven” (Samuel Tourneux)
“I Met the Walrus” (Josh Raskin)
“Madame Tutli-Putli” (Chris Lavis & Maciek Szczerbowski)
“My Love” (Aleksandr Petrov)
“Peter & the Wolf” (Suzie Templeton)
Will win: "My Love"
Should win/spoiler: "Madame Tutli-Putli"

So here's how this category goes: there are three stop-motion films made with puppets, ("Pigeons," "Tutli-Putli," "Peter"), one ink-on-paper ("Walrus") and "My Love." Which is, in a word, astounding. It looks like an animated oil painting; how it was actually achieved, I don't quite know at the moment.

My sense is that "Madame Tutli-Putli" is the frontrunner among the stop-motion films, having the most expressive puppets and most ambitious narrative. Meanwhile, "Walrus" is a conundrum, having the edgiest style with the safest theme - John Lennon sure liked peace! If the shorts were voted on by the Academy at large, that would be my pick to win; it's candy for boomers and manna for art fans. But they aren't, and the animation as such in the Russian "My Love" is much more impressive than the others - it's the only film here that doesn't look like anything else out there.

This is a basically great set of films - the strongest category this year.


Best Live-Action Short
“At Night” (Christian E. Christiansen)
“The Mozart of Pickpockets” (Philipe Pollet-Villard)
“The Substitute” (Andrea Jublin)
“Tanghi Argentini” (Guy Thys)
“The Tonto Woman” (Daniel Barber)
Will/should win: "Tanghi Argentini"
Spoiler: "The Mozart of Pickpockets"

This is not a basically great set of films. I will not pick them apart, for that would be mean. But as far as the award goes: "At Night" is just upsetting and sad. "The Substitute" is extremely zany, but it has the least "content" of any of these. "The Tonto Woman" is very well-crafted, but emotionally remote. It is the only English-language film here, but that doesn't mean jack in the short categories.

That leaves us with "The Mozart of Pickpockets," (a sweet little homeless deaf boy moves in with two hapless French pickpockets) and "Tanghi Argentini" (a bumbling Belgian office worker wants to learn to tango and impress a woman he met on the internet, and somewhere in there he teaches everybody the True Meaning of Christmas). The last of these is the only one of the five I honestly liked (though I wanted to like "The Tonto Woman"), but I'm trying not to let that influence me: I genuinely think that it has more of a resolution than "Mozart", and that the cute kid factor will be somewhat negated by the fact that "Tanghi's" protagonist is a lovable everyman.


Best Documentary Short
“The Crown” (Amanda Micheli & Isabel Vega)
“Freeheld” (Cynthia Wade)
“Salim Baba” (Tim Sternberg)
“Sari’s Mother” (James Longley)
Will win: "Sari's Mother"
Spoiler: "Freeheld"

The other category in which I've seen not one single film. Here's what I know about the content:

-"The Crown": a beauty contest in a Spanish prison
-"Freeheld": a dying policewoman fights to leave her pension to her same-sex partner
-"Salim Baba": the life of an volunteer film projectionist in India
-"Sari's Mother": an Iraqi mother looks for health care for her 10-year-old son with AIDS

What can I say? They had me at "10-year-old son with AIDS".